As an Education Studies major, so much of what I learn in my classes is reflected in the work 826 National does. Education inequality takes many forms, and 826 National has taken a writing-centered approach to improving overall education outcomes for their students.
The Ed Studies department loves to talk about “gaps”. In particular, we frequently discuss both the achievement gap and the opportunity gap. At their core, these terms refer to the ways inequality and inequity manifest themselves in our education systems. The achievement gap refers to the unequal distribution of educational results — test scores, general grades, ultimate level of education — between groups. The opportunity gap is the inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities — access to experienced teachers, rigorous coursework, safe environments — that create the achievement gap. From a social justice perspective, these inequities in education serve as the foundation for so many other social injustices, from the effects of the school-to-prison-pipeline to cycles of poverty.
There is much debate about the best ways to approach closing these gaps, but I’m going to focus on the strategies 826 National has incorporated into their work. As a primarily writing-centered program, they focus on creating curriculum that is challenging AND engaging for students who often do not see themselves or their cultures reflected in traditionally white, eurocentric lesson plans. When educational opportunities are actually engaging students, the learning comes far more naturally.
One of the many inequities facing students actually happens outside the classroom. After school opportunities like extracurriculars and tutoring are typically only available for those who can afford them. This after school time is important for long-term in-school achievement, and many kids are pushed out of school because there is simply no safe, engaging space for them after school closes. For this reason, 826 programming is free. Free access to fun, safe, research-based tutoring and workshops for students in underserved communities helps ensure that these young people are not left behind as more affluent students head to their private tutoring sessions.
Additionally, research shows that individualized student attention enhances student outcomes. In the media, we hear about this as the need for smaller class sizes. And while low student-teacher ratios is a goal we should certainly be working toward, 826 National recognizes that right now this is not possible, especially in urban school settings (where it is arguably needed the most). Instead, 826 chapters commit to low student-volunteer ratios in their after school programs and workshops. Even if a student is one of thirty-five in the classroom all day, at their local 826 center they work with a volunteer in groups of one or two students per volunteer. This individualized attention in the afternoon re-engages a student in their work and gives them the time and resources they need to succeed in school.
Access to resources, individualized attention and help, and the right to explore one’s creativity are the cornerstones of success for 826 National’s students. Understanding these principles is essential for the work I do at the National office. My tasks involve working with the local chapters to provide the support and the resources they need to adequately engage students. So while I am not working directly with these students myself, I would not be able to properly work with other chapters without an understanding of the educational barriers that our students face nationwide.
-Katie Reinhold, ’19